Only Let There Be No War

'Films of Nikita Mikhalkov: Volume 1'

by Sean Murphy

23 December 2010

Nikita Mikhalkov in Burnt By the Sun 

The Haunting of an Entire Country

Oblomov is, aside from Burnt By The Sun, the film Mikhalkov is best known for outside his own country. Based on the novel by Ivan Goncharov, the eponymous protagonist is a classic sort of Russian anti-hero. Oblomov (played by an ideally cast Oleg Tabakov, whose pudding-face and pork chop physique could not possibly be more suited to the character) is rather like Melville’s Bartleby, only with means. Like Melville’s morose scrivener, Oblomov would prefer not to…do much of anything. He suffers from the very Romantic and very Russian literary affliction of ennui.

Once his legendary inertia is adequately established (augmented by narrated flashbacks of a pampered youth), we meet his lifelong friend Stoltz, the sophisticated and ambitious businessman who knows culture, eats carefully and generally tends to his physical and mental well-being—the anti-Oblomov, if you will. At Stoltz’s urging, his friend reluctantly agrees to spend a summer in the country where he meets the young and gorgeous Olga (Elena Solovey again). He slowly and predictably (but convincingly) falls in love with her, and the resolution of this infatuation will have permanent ramifications. Oblomov is an old-fashioned epic: long, deliberate, full of careful tracking shots (indoor and especially outside), wonderful score, solid acting and able to conjure up another time and place that, once viewed, will be difficult to forget.

Without Witness is probably the most straightforward, if least satisfying of the films. Even more claustrophobic than Five Evenings, all the action occurs during the course of one evening in a small Moscow apartment. The tone is disarmingly jovial when an ebullient, and inebriated, ex-husband (Mikhail Ulyanov)—who has since remarried—drops in on his still-single ex-wife (Irina Kupchenko). They do not seem especially estranged, and she does not seem unduly upset—or surprised—by his impromptu appearance. One quickly suspects his roguish goodwill and her stoic grace are masks, and one is correct. As the evening winds down, they each unburden themselves of secrets, resentments and a nasty surprise or two. Nothing that unfolds is particularly surprising (or frankly memorable) but the acting is fine and it works well enough as the obvious Bergman tribute it is attempting to be.

Finally, the one most western audiences have seen, or at least heard of, Burnt By The Sun. This is perhaps the only film from the last 20 years where I agree with virtually every critique (of which there are many, aside from the contrarian cranks who feel obliged to find fault with any movie fortunate enough to be lavished with awards), yet still consider it a near-masterpiece. Is it, at times, heavy-handed? Da. Can it fairly be accused of occasional preciousness? Da. Sentimental? Da. Still, and I measure my words carefully here, so was Tolstoy. Am I comparing this film to Tolstoy? Sort of. It is undoubtedly the most accurate, or at least successful, depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan” (Memento, incidentally, is for my money the most “Dostoyevskian”).

This invocation is not offered lightly: the (very impressive) number of characters, the scope of its political, social and romantic entanglements, the sense of history anticipating the future even as the future seems to mockingly distort memory and deed, the violence and tenderness—occasionally contained in the same gesture; all of these are indelible elements of great Russian literature. If nothing else, Mikhalkov should be celebrated for the audacity to throw his cap in the big arena and go for broke.

The acting is top notch all around, including Mikhalkov who stars as the war hero and Stalin confidante Colonel Kotov. Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listener’s faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Like most masterful movies, Burnt By The Sun can be appreciated for its succession of unforgettable scenes: Kotov explaining war and peace to his young daughter by admiring her soft and unscarred feet; Mitia correcting his servant’s pronunciation while carefully loading his pistol; the peasant driving in circles all day, looking for a town that never existed; Mitia playing the piano while wearing a gas mask—and the moment he locks eyes with Kotov across the room: a short and subtle exchange that shifts the entire momentum of the movie; Mitia standing fully clothed in the creek, reciting (in broken English) from Hamlet…these are all astonishing gifts that can be savored again and again. At the beginning of the movie a song is performed in a public square while Kotov and his wife dance in the snow; at the end the song is whistled by Mitia as he sinks into a warm bathtub: in a little over two hours we’ve seen the story of these lives played out, encapsulating the joy, hope, dismay and dread we know haunted an entire country.

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